video games are fun!Video games are nothing like they use to be, as the activity has transformed since its debut in the 1970s in ways that might have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. Games can connect players in one part of the world to players in another, and advancement in game design means there is a huge variation in content available. As such, parenting children who play games in today’s world, whether on a mobile device, a console system or a computer, requires some degree of awareness regarding the nature of video games. That’s why we’re going in depth about some key aspects of gaming that could put your child’s security at risk and discussing how you should approach the activity to keep your children safe.

What changes in gaming should parents be aware of?

Gaming has changed a lot from its early days. No longer is this activity limited to one or two people playing in an isolated environment. Whether you’ve played games in the past or currently play them, or you’ve never picked up a controller, there are some important aspects of modern gaming that parents should know about, such as:

Online gaming can lead to unwanted contact from strangers. Many games today come with online connectivity, meaning that your child can play and communicate with friends and strangers of different ages — sometimes even in person, as with the recent Pokémon Go craze. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems like inappropriate contact from adults – including predators – or online harassment. While not present in every online game, harassment is an acknowledged industry-wide issue that can range from general slurs and insults to targeted behaviors that can spill over into the real world. Doxxing, for example, involves people tracking down and outing someone’s real identity for the purpose of provoking offline harassment. An equally egregious behavior called swatting involves sending law enforcement (usually full SWAT teams) to gamers’ doorsteps.

Games can be bought and played on-demand. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and connected devices, games can be purchased and played just about anywhere – on smartphones, tablets, online and even in game stores or at local arcades. Monitoring your child’s gaming habits means knowing where and how they get and play their games, which isn’t easy when there are so many different options available. Furthermore, many games are now designed with “microtransactions” available within the game – meaning your child could unwittingly spend a ton of money while playing a game you’ve already purchased (or one that is advertised as free to play on the app store). Nearly every gaming platform has at least one online store where games can be purchased and downloaded on-demand, so long as there’s a credit card or other payment account connected to it. This, in turn, could expose your payment card to fraud if their gaming account is hacked or lead to problems with malware if they aren’t downloading games from trusted sources.

Content varies widely. Just as with movies and television shows, today’s games fall into a multitude of genres and can contain hyper-realistic graphics, dialogue and situations. The issue with the content of games varying widely, sometimes even within a single franchise, a lot of nuance is needed to monitor a child’s gaming habits for age-appropriate content. Parents might feel overwhelmed when trying to decide whether a game is right for their child, especially if they don’t play video games themselves.

What should parents do to protect their kids while gaming?

While the world of gaming can be hard to navigate, there are some things you can do as a parent to ensure your child plays safely.

Talk to them about gaming and cybersecurity. We’ve talked before about the need for children to have strong cybersecurity knowledge. That goes double if they’re participating in online gaming, or if they have accounts with services which store digital copies of their games. Make sure their gaming accounts have strong passwords and help them set up two-factor authentication so that they don’t become victim to hackers – something that is more prevalent than you might think. The platform(s) they use to play their games matter, too, when it comes to cybersecurity. Typically, games can be purchased and played on consoles which connect to a television, computers, handheld devices, smartphones and other smart devices like tablets, and it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with their platform of choice. Some games and gaming services ask for personal information, which can potentially put your child’s identity at risk, especially if your child is playing a game that is geared toward adults.

Know what games your child plays. As mentioned above, there are a lot of different video game types and genres. Some are played alone without online interaction, while others have both online and offline modes. You should research any of the games your child is playing (or wants to play) — read reviews, visit the official game website and look for the official game rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Similar to ratings for movies, ESRB ratings can tell a parent what kind of content a game contains and what ages it’s considered appropriate to play. From there, you can make a decision about whether or not the game is a good fit for your child. Another great way to understand the games your child is playing is to play with them, which also provides an opportunity to bond.

Teach them to stand up to harassment and play nice. Once your child is old enough to play online, tell them to never engage in verbal spats with harassers or respond to unwanted contact. They should use in-game reporting and moderation functions to have anyone engaging in harassment (either against them or other players) kicked out of the game. Above all, it’s important to teach them that if they ever feel uncomfortable during a game, they can leave it. Be sure to keep the communication open by encouraging them to come to you or another trusting adult if they want to talk about any harassment they experienced or witnessed. In addition to standing up to harassment, your child shouldn’t contribute to harassment. Online bullying is a problem which needs to be combated on both sides of the issue.

Set time limits for gaming sessions. It can be a smart move to limit the amount of time each week that your child spends using technology, including playing games. While many consoles and gaming programs have parental control options, they might not be strong enough or provide the types of safeguards and monitoring that a dedicated parental control software gives you. This type of program can also give you control over your child’s mobile device usage and Internet browsing habits.

Gaming is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the vast digital world open to today’s children. To get more information on keeping your kids safe while online, keep reading our technology blog.